I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience. These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.
Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable. He produces a popular series of video reviews. And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection. I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.
I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.
Consider a story of moral complicity. When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described. Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.
But there’s no excuse within a game. The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.
In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:
You think you’re better than me,
cleaner or more good
because I did what you may have only
When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level.
In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:
Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.
I mean pressure. Pretty disgusting. Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding. I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.
Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level. We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.
And yet. In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner. And players did it. Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …
You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from. Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military. Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.
From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:
“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.
There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.
I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture. It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts. We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.
The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth. But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.
We are monsters. That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.
And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.
Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes. The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative. Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.
When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism. I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier. It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.
Header image by Padaguan.